Ian RuderIt seems like not a week goes by without some story in the news about inappropriate touching. Thanks to the overeager hands of politicians, entertainers, businessmen and other public figures, there is more discussion about the boundaries of “proper” touching and how we physically interact with each other than at any point I can remember.

I bring this up not because I have some brilliant solution or “best practices” that will change everyone’s perspectives, but because I can’t imagine a better time to examine where those boundaries lie in regard to us — people with disabilities.

On the one hand, none of us want strangers accosting us and pushing our chairs when not asked; on the other hand, ignoring the need for closeness and the connections bred by human touch can be equally harmful, and even dangerous.

Whether I’m out for a roll, at a social event, or even hanging out with friends, I am constantly reminded that most people simply don’t know how to interact with people who use wheelchairs and other assistive devices. I see the confusion and uncertainty on strangers’ faces as they take in my bulky power wheelchair — how do I approach him? Should I extend a hand to shake? Is a hug even possible?

I understand the confusion, and I’m the first to admit I wasn’t totally comfortable with how to interact with people with disabilities before I became one, but I also understand how important touch is.

In addition to telling us how something feels, touch carries emotion and shapes our perception on a level much deeper than the physical. A warm embrace, a slimy palm or a firm handshake can tell you everything you need to know about a new acquaintance. A good massage can alleviate pain and stress, and something as simple as a hug can improve your mood and stave off depression.

These correlations aren’t just anecdotal either. Among other positive results, studies have shown that hugs can help ameliorate cold symptoms and that as little as 15 minutes of touch can have helpful effects.

After reading about some of these studies in a recent article in The Atlantic, I emailed Tiffany Field, the founder of the Touch Research Institute at the University of Miami’s Miller School of Medicine. Field, a developmental psychologist, is known for her studies on the importance of touch. She studied the impact of touch deprivation on infants and found that simple, repeated touch could help them gain weight and avoid medical problems.

I told her I was a quadriplegic with limited sensation, and how much more difficult I found it to have meaningful physical interactions with others. It’s a reality that I’ve heard many other wheelers bemoan, and one that I don’t think many nondisabled people even consider.  I asked her if she was aware of anyone studying the effects of touch deprivation on our community.

Sadly, aside from one study on massaging quadriplegics, she said she didn’t know of other such studies. But she did seem intrigued and promised to pass along the correspondence to the spinal cord research team at the hospital. Maybe that will lead to something, maybe not.  But in the meantime, now seems like a good time to engage people from both inside and outside the disability community and get the conversation going.

If you have a disability, take the time to educate people you care about regarding how you can physically connect. If you don’t have a disability, look for appropriate ways to ask questions and facilitate discussion. Loneliness and depression are all too common in the disability community and to ignore such a simple remedy would be negligent.